BRUSSELS — Austrians vote on Sunday on whether to join a European trend by scrapping conscription and moving to a professional army, yet a poll suggests they may keep the draft for reasons that have little to do with national defense.
Much of Western Europe has scrapped compulsory military service since the end of the Cold War removed the need for large armies.
Germany phased it out in 2011, following France, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, and others that switched to voluntary forces in the last two decades. Britain ended conscription in 1960.
In Austria, men deemed fit must serve six months in the military or carry out nine months of civilian service when they turn 18.
Thousands avoid the barracks and choose instead to drive ambulances or work in hospitals and nursing homes — a supply of labor that would also dry up if military service were scrapped.
Community service is "one of the main pillars of social life in Austria," said Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner. "The emergency services keep seven out of 10 people doing community service beyond the end of their term."
Austria's government and public opinion are both divided on whether to keep conscription.
The vote comes as European governments slash defense spending and scale back armies to cope with austerity, raising concern in Washington that the continent will be weakened militarily.
Professional armies are usually smaller than conscript forces, but defense experts say they are generally more effective, better trained and more capable of using high-tech weaponry and equipment.
Austria's coalition partners the center-left Social Democrats (SPO) and center-right People's Party (OVP) have argued for years over the future of the military, with the SPO calling for a professional army and the OVP defending conscription.
A Gallup poll for Oesterreich newspaper last week showed 48 percent for keeping the draft, 40 percent in favor of a professional army and the rest undecided or uncertain.
Turnout is likely to be low, which could affect the result.
Supporters say it builds character and helps bind the army to a democratic society. Opponents say it takes time out of young people's lives and brings few benefits as conscripts do not learn enough to be of much use to a modern army.
"It was not as bad as I had imagined, but it was just as senseless as you always hear it is," said Harald Glanzer, a 30-year-old student who served in an anti-aircraft division in Mautern, Lower Austria. "We had long down-times in which you can't do anything. But you do a lot of sport, you're outside a lot and you meet nice people among the other recruits."
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.